Did you know that there was over 1,700 miles of railroad track laid in the US from 1863-1869? This magnificent project was known as the Transcontinental Railroad, stretching all the way from California to Nebraska. The transcontinental railroad, took a long time to build, but connected the East and the West of the United States and had many impacts. Building the railroad was no easy task. The US government passed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, and this gave the private companies permission, as well as funds to start building this railroad.
The two companies tasked with constructing this railroad were the Union Pacific Company, and the Central Pacific Company. The government provided lots of help in building them, as they provided the companies with $16,000 per mile on flat land, $32,000 per mile on country land, and a whopping $48,000 per mile on mountainous terrain. However, these massive amounts of money were not free gifts, but long-term loans, that had to be paid back in 30 years. The construction of the transcontinental railroad gave jobs to thousands of workers, many of whom were immigrants of varying ethnicities, for example, Mexican, White, Irish, and African America.
The Central Pacific Company needed many more workers than they had, so they advertised on help wanted signs saying, “The Central Pacific Railroad Company advertises for 5000 laborers to work upon the [rail]road… It is in the intention of the company to employ at once as many men as can be advantageously worked. ” (Stein 37). The job of laying railroad tracks certainly was backbreaking and sometimes dangerous work. The workers only received a very low pay, in exchange for the hazardous work they performed.
Wind and snow caused avalanched in some areas with mountains and unfortunately killed some manual workers. The railroad’s construction began in December of 1863 in Omaha, Nebraska, and went on until the last spike, the “Golden Spike” was hammered down in a ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah on May 10th, 1869. The Union Pacific Company built the tracks from Nebraska, going westward, towards Promontory, Utah, and the Central Pacific Company built the tracks from Sacramento, California, going eastward, also towards Promontory, Utah.
The two companies’ tracks were set to meet in Promontory, Utah, and they met in 1869 and the railroad was finished. Once the transcontinental railroad was finished, it was more than 1,700 miles long stretching across the United States from Nebraska to California. The final tally stood as; The Union Pacific company had built 1,085 miles of track, and the Central Pacific Company built 690 miles of railroad track. This, added to the existing rail network that already spanned from the East Coast to Nebraska, truly connected the country.
The railroad soon became so important to the country that George Francis Train, in his speech, states, “The Great Pacific railway [another name for the transcontinental railroad] is commenced… The Pacific Railway is the nation and the nation is the Pacific railway. This is the grandest enterprise under God. ” (Stein 58). The main reason the railroad was so important is because before it was built in the 1860s, all US railroads only went from the West Coast to Nebraska, and never further West.
Rail transport proved so important to the North and the South that during the Civil War, the two sides were constantly trying to sabotage the other side’s railroad tracks! The Transcontinental Railroad had many positive impacts on the United States. One example of these positive impacts is that it drastically cut the time it took mail to reach the other side of the country. The mail no longer needed to be carried on the Pony Express, which took up to 10 days, because people on horses can only travel so fast, and need time to rest.
The railroad, on the other hand, cut the time for the same journey, down to just 6 days, or less. Since there were limited methods of communication back then, being able to write to someone, and receive a reply in 12 days instead of 20 was a great improvement. The new mail delivery system also left a smaller chance of lost envelopes and packages, because mail was now securely stored in a train car instead of a bag on the back of a horse. The pros of building the Transcontinental Railroad didn’t just stop there, it also, as expected, made the experience of travelling across the country much more comfortable, and a lot safer.
Before the railroad, your only options would have been to either take a wagon, or take an extremely long ship route. After the trains were introduced, these two options were rarely even considered, as train travel in the 1800’s was ideal in almost every aspect. In turn, this created a lot of population growth in the largely unexplored West. There was lots of land to be claimed, and fields to be farmed in the West, and this, along with the now easy travel, attracted many settlers and immigrants.
In fact, the population growth caused the states of NV, CO, ND, SD, MT, WA, ID, and WY to be created! The growth created new towns, and caused more gold and silver to be mined at a faster rate. To summarize these effects, it essentially boosted the development of the American West. While the transcontinental railroad had many positive effects, unfortunately, there were some negative ones. An example of this would be the drastic decline in the buffalo population in the US caused by this railroad. The railroad workers killed off a large portion of the buffalos as a source of food.
Many people who hunted for sport, or hunted to sell the meat began arriving by train, and killing massive numbers of buffalo. These two combines detrimentally affected the population of the American Bison, also called the Buffalo. Another account of the railroad having negative influence on the United States and its people is the struggle of the Natives to try and halt the trains. The Native Americans believed that the transcontinental railroad was crossing over their land, and they were right. The tracks did cross over Indian territories, and they would not stand for it.
They strongly believed that wherever this railroad went, white settlers followed, and that it would end their culture and way of life. Although, at the time, they had never even seen trains and railroad tracks, and had no idea what they were, or how incredible powerful they were, they decided to try and stop it. The Natives gathered a group of people who would each get on a horse, and try to halt one of the mighty “Iron Horse” steam trains. The people mounted on horses stood on either side of the railroad tracks, and held a rope, almost as if it were tug-of-war.
It became a terrible tragedy, many of them were injured, and some of them even died under the wheels of the train. The transcontinental railroad certainly proved to be a worthy addition to the infrastructure of the United States in the 1800’s. It connected the country with a safe, fast, and reliable method of transportation. It had lots of effects, good and bad, on trade, travel, wildlife, and Native American relations. While this railroad was nowhere near perfect, it is definitely agreeable that the western United States could never have developed this quickly without the transcontinental railroad.